by Anja Zeidler
|"This table top was the original [...],
a painting by Hieronymus Bosch portraying the Seven Deadly Sins in medieval
(meddy-evil, the Reverend pronounced it, an unholy light in his eyes) indulgence.
Under the glass
which covered it, Christ stood with one maimed hand upraised, beneath him in rubrics, Cave, Cave, D videt . ." The Recognitions, p. 25
During the Spanish Civil War the tabletop was -- for reasons of safety
-- transferred to the Prado from a place where it had been for over three
hundred years: the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, one
of the largest religious establishments in the world, imperial image and
austere architectural symbol of Philip II's rule during the second half
of the 16thcentury:
The monastery of El Escorial, a small village 26 miles northwest of Madrid, is not only a grand architectural monument of Philip's reign but also a considerable pinacotheca, still housing many famous paintings, among them several by Hieronymus Bosch (the Hay Wain, Christ Carrying the Cross, Crowning with Thorns [presumably by follower of Bosch], and a copy of the left wing of the so-called Garden of Earthly Delights). Like his father Charles V, Philip II was a distinguished patron of painters, musicians, and scholars; his great interest in contemporary art and culture made him an important collector of paintings, books, and other cultural artifacts. What has been preserved of Bosch's work we owe mostly to Philip II. According to inventories, at least 26 paintings by Hieronymus Bosch had been in his possession, among them the Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins. A list of paintings shipped to El Escorial in 1574 contains a short description of "una tabla en que está pintado los Siete pecados mortales" (a panel on which are portrayed the Seven Deadly Sins). It is the first of six shipments of paintings sent to El Escorial with the purpose of decorating the monastery.  In addition to the inventory we also learn about the painting and its owner Philipe II from both Don Felipe de Guevara's Comentarios de la Pintura (ca. 1560) "una mesa que V. M. tiene," a table belonging to his Majesty,  -- and Fray José de Sigüenza (1606), monk and librarian at El Escorial.  In his History of the order of San Jerónimo Sigüenza describes in detail the decoration of the palace, giving a great deal of consideration to the paintings in Philip's private rooms, among them the excellent table painting [&] in the chambers of His Majesty (en el aposento de su Magestad, [&], está una tabla y quadro excelente).  In a manner indicating that he is talking about one and the same painting, Sigüenza also mentions seven other circles representing the seven sacraments (otros siete cercos puso luego los siete sacramentos).  It remains unclear what kind of painting he is talking about and whether there was an actual companion piece to The Seven Deadly Sins no longer existing today as is the case with so many Bosch paintings we only know from inventories of various royal collections.
The inventories (1570 [Purchase of art works by Philip II from the collection
of Felipe de Guevara], 1574 [first shipment to El Escorial], and 1593
[last shipment to El Escorial]) serve as an important basis for
establishing a catalogue of Bosch's oeuvre. Nevertheless, they cannot
be entirely trusted: the aforementioned Guevara already reports that many
paintings falsely bore the signature of Bosch. It should be mentioned
that Guevara's book is not any 16th century book on painting, especially
when it comes to Hieronymus Bosch. From what we know it seems that through
his father, Diego de Guevara, Felipe got some first-hand knowledge of
Hieronymus Bosch. Diego de Guevara, confidant and consultant of the Spanish
kings at the court of Philip the Fair in Flanders and after Philip's death
at the court of archduke Charles, the later emperor Charles V, was a collector
and lover of contemporary Flemish painting. (See here for 16th century
portrait of him:
It might very well be that Diego himself had contact to Flemish painters; Philip the Fair, at least, staying in 's-Hertogenbosch in the winter 1504/05, must have known Bosch personally, as he had ordered a Last Judgment from him and made an advance payment the same year he stayed in Bosch's birthplace. It was around 1500 that Bosch became popular with the nobles of the Burgundian-Spanish court.  We don't know anything about a relationship between Diego de Guevara and Bosch, but we do know that he owned several paintings by him (as becomes clear from a quarrel between his brother Pedro  and his son Felipe concerning his estate, which listed those paintings) and was a connoisseur of Bosch's work, a knowledge which he must have passed on to Felipe, who was twenty years old when his father died and in his later years in Madrid a collector himself.  The 1570 inventory listed the art works Philip II purchased from Felipe de Guevara's collection, containing six paintings by Bosch. The Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins is not among them.
Bosch's work was very popular in the 16th
century, was widely copied, imitated, and forged. 
Thus even highly qualified paintings aren't necessarily
painted by Hieronymus Bosch himself. Felipe de Guevara talks about the great number of artificially aged
and falsely signed paintings (Ansi vienen á ser infinitas las pinturas de
este género, selladas con el nombre de Hyerónimo Bosco, falsamente
inscripto; [&] ahumandolas á las chimeneas para dalles autoridad
y antiguidad, p. 127), calling those who copied Bosch without sense or
spirit imitatores. Against them he sets one, the so-called discipulo,
whom he claims to be different, "mas diligente y paciente que Bosco"
(p. 128), even more meticulous and patient than Bosch himself. The
sentence following this introduction of the mysterious pupil has led to
opposing interpretations among scholars. In this sentence,
Guevara mentions the Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins : "Exemplo
de este género de pintura, es una mesa que V. M. tiene," "an
example of this genre is a table that belongs to his Majesty." All
depends on how one interprets this sentence in its context. (1) Does it
refer to the pupil Guevara had praised in the sentence before? Or (2)
does he come back to his earlier characterization of Bosch as someone
who never surpasses the natural despite his painting monstrosities, or,
(2) does he take the Madrid tabletop as a good example of what is characteristic
of Bosch? "Guevara attributed the tabletop to the aforementioned
discipulo,"  Bernard Vermet states with conviction
in the rich catalogue accompanying the 2001 Bosch exhibition in Rotterdam
For the same reasons and the fact that not a single work is dated, dissension
exists in dating Bosch's work. The Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins
in particular has been dated contradictorily. It has been ranked among
the earliest works of Bosch due to a certain crudeness of execution (Charles
Tolnay mentions Baldass, Combe, Friedländer, see also Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat,
Hieronymus Bosch, München, 1981, cp. the bibliography which can
be found here: http://music.research.home.att.net/BoschBiblio.htm),
There is not as much dissent when it comes to the iconography of the painting. Chailly simply said "L'oeuvre est tout simplement ce qu'elle est, et elle dit ce qu'elle annonce" (The work is simply that which it is, it portrays that which it foretells).  It is very unlikely that the Madrid tabletop has been used as a table: it would have been too easily damaged. It is likely that the very form of the painting had been expressly commissioned by someone. Wilhelm Fraenger believed that it was not only meant to be looked at but also meant to be walked around: walking around the table enables viewers to take in each of the seven scenes, but at the same time he or she loses sight of the four Last Things in the four corners of the painting, as well as the two inscriptions on the banderoles ("They are a nation void of sense; there is no understanding in them. If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern what the end would be" [Deuteronomy 32:28-29], and: "I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end will be" [32:20]) and the "Cave, Cave, Dominus Vide" (Beware, beware, the Lord sees) beneath Christ as the man of sorrows in the center. Standing in front of the painting one faces God, one faces eternity, walking around it one enters the world of transience.  "To the Middle Ages, the pattern of the wheel would have been a most appropriate way to suggest the path taken by sinners."  By transforming the traditional wheel of Vice and Fortune into the eye of God two conceptions familiar in the Middle Ages were fused: "God as the ever-present witness of sinful mankind, and God as a mirror reflecting the variety of his creation."  The eye is a mirror of the vices of mankind, it is also a mirror wherein the individual viewer beholds the reflection of his own sinful soul. The Tabletop of the Seven Deadly Sins may well have been planned as a piece for private meditation, for intense self-examination before confession, "a mirror of spiritual introspection."  "[I]n the surroundings of El Escorial, the paintings by Bosch [&] served [&] as devotional objects, this being the role for which they were originally produced."  "At every side of his [Majesty's] bed and on the walls of his bedroom, crucifixes and images were hung in order to refresh his memory" (para refescar la memoria [&] tenia a todos los lados de la cama, y por las parades de su dormitorio, Crucifixes e imagenes), José de Sigüenza writes. This mirror showed Philip what man is, namely sinful, but it also showed him what man should strive to be, Christ-like. "When we look into the eye of another, we see our image reflected in the pupil as if in a mirror," Socrates visualizes to Alcibiades the Delphic injunction "know thyself. If the soul seeks to know herself, she must look into another soul and especially into its noblest part" that most resembles God. 
 Paul Vandenbroeck, The Spanish inventarios reales and Hieronymus Bosch, in Jos Koldeweij, Bernard Vermet (eds.). Hieronymus Bosch. New Insights into his Life and Work, Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2001, p. 50-52.
 Commentarios de la Pintura, 2nd. ed., intro. Rafael Benet, Barcelona, 1948, p. 128. As late as the end of the 18th century the manuscript was found in the shop of a junk dealer, then published by A. Ponz in Madrid in 1788 (cp. C. Justi, Miscellaneen aus drei Jahrhunderten spanischen Kunstlebens, 2. Band, G. Grote'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung: Berlin, 1908, p. 65).
Historio de la Orden de San Jerónimo, 2nd. Ed. Madrid: Bailly/Bailliére, 1909, p. 637.
 Vandenbroeck in: Jos Koldewij, Paul Vandenbroeck, Bernard Vermet. Hieronymus Bosch. The Complete Paintings and Drawings. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers 2001, p. 101.
 Pedro de Guevara served in the household of Count Hendrick III of Nassau who seems to have had Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights installed in his palace at Brussels as early as 1517, one year after the artist's death. Walter S. Gibson, "Hieronymus Bosch and the Mirror of Man,"Oud-Holland Vol. 87, No. 4, 1973, p. 207.
 On Diego de Guevara see especially Gerd Unverfehrt, Hieronymus Bosch.Die Rezeption seiner Kunst im frühen 16. Jahrhundert (H.B. The Reception of his art in the early 16th century). Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 1980,, p. 65f.
 Bruegel's two series of prints of The Seven Deadly Sins, or Vices (1556-1558) is undoubtedly the most famous example of work inspired by Bosch. It has been assumed that Bruegel's chief reason for imitating Bosch in his graphic work was a commercial one: Bosch was simply more popular than Bruegel, and therefore engravings in the Bosch manner were more marketable than his own prints. Jürgen Müller on The Seven Deadly Sins by Pieter Bruegel in: Nadine M. Orenstein, Pieter Bruegel theElder. Drawings and Prints, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001, p. 145.
 Jos Koldeweij, Paul Vandenbroeck, Bernard Vermet. Hieronymus Bosch. The Complete Paintings and Drawings. Rotterdem: Nai Piblishers, 2001, p. 93.
 Cp. Roger H. Marijnissen. Das vollständige Werk. Antwerpen: Mercatorfonds, 1999, p. 15. Also Koldeweij, Vandenbroeck, Vermet, p. 95 ff.
 Vermet, 2001, p. 93.
 An inventory of art work in the old Alcázar in Madrid (1636) lists two other sins paintings no longer extant. And there is the inventory of one Margaretha Boghe from Antwerp, whose estate also lists a Seven Deadly Sins by Bosch.
 Walter S. Gibson. Hieronymus Bosch. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973, p. 25. Marijnissen, p.330, Vermet, p. 93. Lynda Harris. The secret heresy of Hieronymus Bosch. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 1995.
 Cp. Marijnissen, p. 330.
 Cp. Wilhelm Fraenger. Hieronymus Bosch. Dresden: Verlag der Kunst, 1975, p. 269.
 W. S. Gibson, "Hieronymus Bosch and the Mirror of Man," Oud-Holland Vol. 87, No. 4, 1973, p. 211.
 Ibid., p. 214.
 Walter S. Gibson p. 37. Similar mirror imagery occurs in many other treatises of moral and spiritual instruction and Brant too conceived of his Ship of Fools as a mirror "where each his counterfeit may see." Ibid.
 "Hieronymus Bosch in "El Escorial: Devotional Paintings in a Monastery," in Jos Koldeweij, Bernard Vermet (eds.). Hieronymus Bosch. New Insights into his Life and Work, Rotterdam: Nai Piblishers, 2001, p. 33.
 Platon. Alkibiades "I,"
in Werke in Acht Bänden. Griechisch und Deutsch. Vol 1. Darmstadt:
Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1977, 133a-133c.